Most of our remote and so much of our recent pasts are not documented and therefore lie outside the purview of mainline history. We must in that case devise other methods, based on different perspectives of history, to reconstruct such pasts to suit our purposes, including those of maintaining the depths of our roots and the strengthening of our autonomous identities. We have to bequeath to future generations more memories of our recent past and our present than we ourselves remember of our remote pasts. We must remember and reconstruct as much of our pasts as we can to present to the future.
—Epeli Hau’ofa, “Pasts to Remember,” 2000
Anyone who has grown up in a Chamorro household on Guam or the Northern Mariana Islands likely can attest to the importance the elders, our manaina, have in our families. Parents, grandparents and the older generations of aunts, uncles and cousins, grow in status because of their age and experience. We respect them for their wisdom and recognize them as keepers of Chamorro traditions, customs, genealogy, history, landholdings, crafts, and family secrets. They are often our first teachers. They taught us the Sign of the Cross (in Catholic households) and how to pray; they showed us how to cook favorite family dishes, and shared special crafts they knew, like weaving, sewing or carving. They told us stories of their lives growing up. They taught us to respect others and reminded us of our responsibilities to the family and to the rest of our community. If we were fortunate enough, they spoke to us in Chamorro. Growing up, we were taught not only to respect our elders, but to care for them when they become too old to take care of themselves. And there is always much sadness when an elder passes away.
Children in the Marianas are taught early on to show respect to their elders. They sniff their saina‘s slightly raised hand (‘nginge) or kiss their cheek, while referring to them as “Ñot” or “Ñora,” and receiving their praise and blessing—or “Dioste ayudi”—in return. Being around the elders, the manaina (or man’amko), and listening to what they have to say, help keep the Chamorro culture alive, ready to pass on to the next generation.
But sometimes, in the busy-ness of our daily lives, we forget the stories our elders told us. Their voices are muted in a world where electronic social media dominates our interactions with each other. Their words and ideas are too “old-fashioned” and don’t fit well with our modern sensibilities and desires. And yet, we forget that they are our most immediate connection to the past, to our history, and to our identity as cultural beings. Like the genetic information in our DNA they passed onto us, their history is passed down to us as well–their history is our history. But just like one’s expression of the genes they inherit is different from either parent, so can an individual’s understanding of history be different from the lived experiences of their ancestors. Genes carry information of what each individual has the potential to become. Likewise, the history of our ancestors shapes our present and can be a guiding force for the future.
What also makes remembering the voices of our elders today more challenging is that much of what they have told us is not written. Like other Pacific island cultures, the Chamorro people used to pass on their history to their children orally. Through the spoken word, story, song, or chanted phrase, Chamorro elders transmitted aspects of culture and history to the younger generations. It took special attention, care and considerably more effort to listen and remember accurately. But people today have become more reliant on written sources and the instant gratification of the Internet (Guampedia excepted, of course). Not only do we forget the stories, but sometimes, we even forget how to listen. The stories of our ancestors are always richer and more exciting when we can access their deeper meanings. However, if we limit ourselves to only hearing the words but without listening to them, we miss out on the nuances and fine details that our elders are trying to impart to us. We must, as Toni “Malia” Ramirez has said in his retelling of the story of Sirena, “Listen to our words, listen to our voices because we don’t write it–we tell it!”
Special Project funded by CAHA
In 2014, Guampedia received a grant from the Guam Council on the Arts and Humanities Agency (CAHA) to partially fund Voices of Our Elders, a four-part project aimed at documenting the unique perspectives and experiences of Guam’s manaina, or elders, by highlighting Chamorro folktales, prewar religious history on Guam and the cultural impacts of two important events in Guam history, namely the three-year internment of the German cruiser SMS Cormoran II in the early 1900s, and the Manila Galleon Trade Route, which ran from 1565 to 1815.
The different parts of the Voices of Our Elders Project are summarized below:
1) Chamorro Folktales
In an effort to gain some new perspective on beloved Chamorro folktales, historian and storyteller Toni “Malia” Ramirez and educator Antonia Degracia Castro, retell the stories of Sirena, Santa Marian Kamalen, and the Maidens that Saved Guam. In addition, they share their own life stories, how they came to hear these folktales and what lessons can be learned regarding life, love, faith and the connections that exist in the relationships we have with each other. This part of Voices of Our Elders builds on the stories in Guampedia’s e-book, “Chamorro Folktales”—a collection of 10 enduring stories from Guam. Purchase the eBook today!
2) “Hinenggen Chamorro”
The Hinenggen Chamorro: The Faith of the Chamorro People Before the War” Exhibit was an exhibit of religious images and artifacts assembled and curated by Pale’ Eric Forbes, OFM Cap., a Chamorro Catholic priest and an avid researcher of Guam and Marianas history. The exhibit was held at Government House from February to March 2014 in commemoration of Chamorro Month and featured historic images, icons and religious displays of predominantly Catholic (but also General Baptist) objects that reflect the strong Christian faith of Guam’s people from this era. Hinenggen Chamorro was well-received by many who visited the exhibit because of the rarity of its pieces and the unique subject matter. Pale’ Eric allowed Guampedia to record him giving a tour of the exhibit in both English and Chamorro, and to make the videos available online so that others could see the display of Guam’s prewar religious history. To watch the video vignettes click here or to watch the Chamorro version at the end of this page click here.
3) La Nao de China
The inspiration for this project was the “La Nao de China” (the Road to China/the Manila Galleon Trade) festival which occurs every year in Acapulco, Mexico to commemorate the Manila Galleon Trade Route that traversed the Pacific between Mexico and the Philippines for over two hundred years. The route represents the beginning of global trade in the region but was also the impetus for the movement of goods and people and the spreading of Spanish influence across the Pacific. Guam, as part of the trade route, was deeply impacted by the arrival of foreigners, particularly Spanish, Filipino and Mexican traders, soldiers and missionaries into the Marianas. In addition to several new entries on the trade route, Manila galleons, and the forzado or forced labor system, historian Toni “Malia” Ramirez in video form, shares some insights on the cultural impacts on the Chamorro people, seen especially in food, clothing and traditions which continue today. Ramirez also emphasizes the persistence of Chamorro language and culture despite centuries of colonialism under four different foreign powers. Explore the entries here. Watch the video vignette in this page click here or click here to watch in the Voices of Our Elders Video Vignettes post.
4) The SMS Cormoran II
SMS Cormoran II was a German merchant ship that traveled to Guam in December 1914, shortly before the entry of the United States into World War I. Guam became a temporary home for the crew of the Cormoran for over two years until the US Navy took the crew as prisoners of war in 1917. The ship was scuttled off of Apra Harbor before the US could claim it. Lying today under 120 feet of water, the Cormoran was the first casualty of World War I between Germany and the United States. With the assistance of historian Toni Ramirez, Guampedia explored stories of what happened while the Cormoran crew was on Guam, what cultural impact did they possibly have on the local Chamorros and stories of possible descendants. Read the overview and explore the SMS Cormoran entries here. Watch the video vignette in this page click here or click here to watch in the Voices of Our Elders Video Vignettes post.
Making Connections with History, Our Elders and the Present
These four seemingly disparate projects—and they initially did start out as separate projects—actually were opportunities to enhance entries already available in Guampedia with some new research and video, as well as to document and retell old and new stories of Guam’s people. Voices of Our Elders provided a platform for showcasing the stories of our elders, and to encourage a greater awareness of the historical circumstances through which they lived their lives and the various influences that informed their identities and understanding of the world. We also wanted to help people today engage with the past and make connections with the stories of the manaina.
The Hinenngen Chamorro exhibit, for example, gives us a context in which to understand our elders, who were motivated by a deep faith and belief in the tenets of the Catholic Church. Life events of birth, baptism, marriage and death, interspersed with fiestas of patron saints and holy days of obligation, and the devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, represented the bulk of the activities that occupied their lives. Visitors to the exhibit displays could see the enduring aspects of religious observations and Chamorro traditions that we continue to celebrate today, attributed in great part to the faith and devotion of our elders–from the veneration of Mary, to the construction of the Christmas belen or nativity scene.
Folktales and other stories that elders passed on to us are another way for us to connect with them. We enjoy the stories for their entertainment value, but there are also important lessons to be learned. Tan Antonia Castro, in her retelling of the Maidens that Saved Guam, teaches that the maidens, like members of a family, worked together to catch the fish destroying the island. Likewise, all members of a family must work together to find solutions to the problems they encounter in life. According to Ramirez, the story of the mermaid Sirena is not only a story to teach children to obey their elders, but it is more importantly, a story about parenting. Parents need to be conscientious of the words they use to communicate to their children because words have great power. They can build children up to be good people or they can tear them down and damage them for life.
Our research into the history of the SMS Cormoran II also revealed some interesting things about this period and the stories that have been told. In particular, we were able to clarify the origin of two local families with German ancestry. Long believed to have descended from the crew members of the Cormoran, we found that in fact, the original ancestors of the Scharffs and the Grays actually arrived on Guam at roughly the same time as the Cormoran but under different circumstances and not as crew members. We also came away with more questions—what happened to the non-German crew members from Papua New Guinea and the Chinese laundry workers who were not taken as prisoners of war by the US? Why were the men who died during the scuttling allowed to be buried in the US Naval Cemetery in Hagåtña and an obelisk erected in their honor? Why, with over 300 young men stuck on Guam for two years, are there no verifiable descendants from social encounters with local women? Historian Toni Ramirez points out in his interview that sometimes, stories are forgotten or lost if no one asks the questions. Although his own parents were too far removed to have directly experienced the Cormoran’s stay, Ramirez believes that maybe there are other families out there who actually have passed on stories of their connection to the vessel or its crew—it just takes someone curious enough to find them and ask.
Looking at the La Nao de China, one can really see the influence of outside cultures on the Chamorro people. From tamales to the mestiza, the belambaotuyan to red rice, the influence of the Manila Galleon Trade Route on the Mariana Islands is unmistakable. Books and articles have been written on the subject, pointing out the various ways in which the people of the Marianas reflect a mix of cultural influences and traditions that share similarities with peoples from Spain, Mexico, China and the Philippines. Even Chamorro customs, or what is collectively referred to as kostumbren Chamorro, a term derived by “Chamorro-cizing” a Spanish word, is described as a mix of indigenous Chamorro traditions, values and behaviors with outside influences, especially Spanish and Filipino cultures. The Manila Galleon Trade, though, raises a lot of important issues about the violence of colonialism, the loss of culture, languages and traditions and the subsequent identity crisis many people contend with today. But, even with this “mixing of cultures,” elders in prewar Guam and Northern Mariana Islands still understood themselves to be Chamorro. Their stories remind us that culture is dynamic and the fact that people have been borrowing from other cultures is not new. What makes Chamorro culture rich, according to Ramirez, is the way in which Chamorros have “maintained the old, received the new and made it our own.”
The value of oral traditions and oral histories
More and more, historians, anthropologists and scholars in other fields have placed greater value on the oral traditions and oral histories of Pacific peoples than before. Recognizing that written histories by non-Chamorros have dominated the world’s understanding of Guam’s past, oral histories by our elders provide a fuller picture of the experiences of Guam’s people. Their stories give insight into what they value, how they identify themselves, and what they deem important to pass on to future generations. They impart wisdom born of experience and their stories are all the richer because they are told in their own words.
On Guam we are fortunate that there have been numerous projects by many people to collect the stories of our elders, especially survivors of World War II, who grew up in prewar times before the island underwent drastic changes socially, culturally, economically and politically, and before many of those voices disappeared with the passage of time. New films and books have been produced based on these stories and are becoming more accessible to broader audiences. But there is still more work that can be done.
Guampedia hopes to take the Voices of Our Elders project further and develop a series of outreach activities and lesson plans to help teachers and students utilize Guampedia’s resources. Ideally, Guampedia would like to develop similar projects that focus on the perspectives of our manaina and make them accessible online.
Mostly, we want this project to encourage the young people of our island to collect the stories of their elders before they can no longer be heard. Our message to them: Talk to your parents and grandparents; write down what they say, or record it electronically. Their stories will be priceless to you on a personal level, and are a direct link to your history.
Since much of what our manaina tell us, especially of our recent pasts, is not documented, recording their voices, their stories, will allow us, as Pacific scholar Epeli Hau’ofa says above, to maintain our roots and strengthen our identities as a people. For if we do not record our stories for ourselves and our children, someone else will write it for us—and they might get it wrong.
The Voices of Our Elders project was made possible through the assistance of our historians and storytellers, including Father Eric Forbes, OFM Cap., Toni “Malia” Ramirez and Antonia Degracia Castro; Dr. Larry Cunningham; the kind folks at the Micronesian Area Research Center; our film production crew, videographers Tom Tanner and Burt Sardoma, and our young film talents, Tessa and Kiera Leon Guerrero, Zea Nauta, Feylia and Rebecca Surigao; Dr. Raymond Anderson, UOG Mass Media; and the Bank of Guam. Opening quote by Epeli Hau’ofa, from “Pasts to Remember,” in Remembrance of Pacific Pasts: An Invitation to Remake History, Robert Borofsky (ed.). Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 2000.
Voices of Our Elders Video Vignettes
A few of our vignettes or short films produced as part of Voices of Our Elders. If you would to see them all click here.
From our folktales, we present Santa Marian Kamalen Retold
To read the entry click here.
Pale’ Eric Forbes’ Hinenggen Chamorro Exhibit
For the English version of the film click here.
La Nao de China: The Manila Galleon Trade
To read the entries click here.
The SMS Cormoran
To explore this section click here.